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Novel Materials in the Environment:
The case of nanotechnology

12th November 2008: launch of the Commission's 27th report on Novel Materials

On 12th November 2008, the RCEP published its latest report on Novel Materials in the Environment: The case of nanotechnology.

The report was prompted by concerns about potential releases to the environment from industrial applications of metals and minerals that have not previously been widely used.  As the majority of the evidence the Commission received was almost entirely focussed on manufactured nanomaterials, the Commission decided to focus on this sector, as an exemplar.  The report examines issues related to innovation in the materials sector and the challenges and benefits arising from the introduction of novel materials (specifically nanomaterials). 
The report makes recommendations on how to deal with ignorance and uncertainty in this area, which could also be applied to other areas of fast-paced technological development.

The consultation exercise on the subject for this latest study, held between October and December 2005, yielded a substantial number of helpful responses, and the Royal Commission were grateful to all who contributed. Having considered all the responses, the Royal Commission decided that the environmental effects of novel materials and applications would be the most appropriate topic for the study. It was well supported, and repressents an area where, with the exception of nanotechnology, little work has been carried out to date.

The new study began in late 2006 with a scoping phase, and as part of that phase the Commission is sought to identify the issues and areas it would be most appropriate for the new study to investigate. A seminar [pdf,35KB] will took place on 11 January 2007 to identify concerns and issues that the study might explore. The Commission then invited the submission of detailed evidence on specific issues that the study would cover.

Four supplementary reports were commissioned as part of the study (available for download from 12th November):

  • Regulation and the Chemical Industry (Mariana Doria, University of Trento, Italy) [pdf, 268KB]
  • Exposure, Uptake, Distribution and Toxicity of Nanomaterials (Professor Stephen Holgate, University of Southampton (UK) and former Member, RCEP) [pdf, 314KB]
  • Literature review on Toxicology of Novel Materials (Tamara Galloway, Peninsular Medical School, UK) [pdf, 164KB]
  • Nanomaterials Innovation Systems: Their Structure, Dynamics and Regulation (Paul Nightingale and colleagues, SPRU, UK) [pdf, 608KB]

Background to the New Study

Novel materials, along with new forms and applications of existing chemicals are continually being developed to help make technological advances and improve performance, mainly in the fields of engineering and IT, but also in many other fields. An example of such a development is rhenium, which has previously been just a waste product from copper mining. It is now used in nickel alloys for jet engines, enabling them to fly at temperatures at about fifty degrees centigrade higher than previously, so lowering fuel consumption.

Nanotechnology and nanoscience are also developing at a rapid pace. Current uses include sunscreens based around microfine particles, car bumpers made from nanocomposites and coatings made from titanium dioxide nanoparticles to produce self cleaning windows 1.

Lately, governments have started to look into this issue, developing policies and funding research. The majority of work carried out in this field has been on nanoscience and technology. The Royal Society in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Engineering published a policy document called "Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties" in July 2004. The report was wide-ranging and included a section on the environmental effects of nanoscience and technology. The UK government published its response to that report in February 2005, and agreed that further research on environmental effects would need to be carried out.

The Office of Science and Technology has set up the inter-governmental Nanotechnology Issues Dialogue Group (NIDG) which will co-ordinate Government activities in this field, and provide evidence to inform the Council for Science and Technology's two and five year reviews of Government's progress on this issue.

Defra is also looking at the environmental effects of these new technologies, using the Royal Society's report as a basis. The Advisory Committee on Hazardous Chemicals has received a number of presentations on the subject. The European Commission also published a 4 year action plan on nanotechnology in June 2005.

The environmental impacts of other new materials, such as rare earth metals in electronic components, in use or in development appear to be less well-studied.

The study will be addressing UK policies and programmes and will make recommendations to the UK government, but the Commission will also look at work being carried out at the EU and global level.

Broad Topics to be Covered

Novel materials and applications cover a wide range of scientific, engineering and technological fields. There are a number of possible ways to subdivide this topic into categories for investigation and how to do this for the purposes of the Royal Commission's report was one of the first issues to be addressed. An example of this is demonstrated by the European Commission who has divided the field into four for the purposes of its research programme, including:

•  Crosscutting materials technologies : This involves developing novel materials with wide ranging application potential, and includes nanotechnology, surface engineering and materials processing technologies;

•  Advanced functional materials : This involves highly advanced materials with multi-sector use, including electronics, magnetic / optical materials, sensors and industrial systems and biomaterials;

•  Sustainable chemistry : This covers the development of sustainable industrial chemistry with efficient use of resources and recycled materials, such as chemical engineering, advanced chemical reactions and chemistry for new materials;

•  Structural materials : This covers all types of engineering 2.

As novel and advanced materials and applications are released into industrial processes and the market place, they will be affected by, and have effects on the environment. The expansion of work in this area and the raising of its profile has meant increased interest and awareness in the subject. The Royal Commission intended to carry out a wide-ranging investigation, looking at different categories of novel materials and applications, including nanomaterials, positive and negative environmental impacts of novel materials, risk assessment and management, the regulatory framework and the identification of research gaps.

Broad topics that it was thought could be covered included:

•  the development process of new materials;

•  the life-cycle analysis of these materials;

•  toxicity and eco-toxicity issues;

•  what the potential impacts on human health in terms of environmental exposure are;

•  what the potential environmental impacts are, both positive and negative, along with possible ways of dealing with them;

•  whether novel materials and applications are adequately regulated under existing environmental regulations;

•  waste issues: some products containing novel materials have a short lifespan and may not be recyclable.

The breadth of this study was potentially very wide, depending on the definition of novel materials used. Therefore, the Commission took the decision not to investigate the use of GM technology, nor the human health aspects of pharmaceuticals or medical devices.

Invitation to submit views on the key issues

The Commission requested views and information to help it to set the scope of the study. The purpose of this phase of the study wass to obtain an overview of current thinking about the topic, broadly defined, and to gather sufficient background information to enable the Commission to formulate their own expectations for the study; the roles they expected the report to fulfil and what audience(s) they intended for the report. At the end of this phase, the Commission defined the issues the report should cover.

The list of issues given above was not intended to be comprehensive or definitive and the Commission were glad to have other significant issues drawn to their attention, together with views on the specific questions that should be investigated. A seminar on the study was be held in autumn 2006.

The letter was addressed to over 100 organisations (listed in the annex) that were particularly likely to have useful experience. It was also sent to the Commission's counterpart bodies in other European countries. The text of the responses will be placed on the Commission's web site at: http://www.rcep.org.uk . Details of the study were also publicised in a news release.

A further invitation was issued, asking for written evidence on more specific questions. The Commission used the preliminary views and information sought here to target the written evidence exercise. This call for written evidence was sent to both recipients of the letter and a wider group of organisations and individuals.

You can view the evidence submitted here. The RCEP makes publically available all the information submitted as part of the the evidence gathering phase of its studies, unless explicitly asked not to.

List of bodies and organisations to which the announcement and request for information was sent

Advanced Materials Department, Cranfield University

Advanced Materials Research Institute, Northumbria University

AEA Technology

Begbroke Directorate, University of Oxford

Biffa Waste Services Ltd

Bionanotechnology IRC

Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council

BOC Edwards

British Embassy, Washington

British Medical Association

British Nuclear Fuels Ltd

British Standards Institute


CBI Belfast (Northern Ireland)

CBI Scotland

CBI Wales



Centre for Environmental Control and Waste Management, Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine

Centre for Environmental Risk, University of East Anglia

Centre for Environmental Strategy, University of Surrey

Centre for Materials Research, Queen Mary College, University of London

Centre for Microfluidics and Microsystems Modelling, CCLRC

Centre for Nanoscale Science, University of Liverpool

Chemical Industries Association

Chief Medical Advisor, DH

Chief Scientific Advisor, OST

Collaborative Research Network in Nanotechnology, University of Birmingham

Confederation of British Industry

Cranfield Health - Bioscience and Technology, Cranfield University

Defence Science and Technology Laboratory

Department for Transport

Department of Chemistry, University of Hull

Department of Civil and Structural Engineering, University of Sheffield

Department of Engineering Materials, University of Sheffield

Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge

Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Department of the Environment (Northern Ireland)

Department of Environmental and Occupational Medicine, University of Aberdeen

Department of Geography, University College London

Department of Health

Department of Materials Engineering, University of Wales, Swansea

Department of Materials, Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine

Department of Materials, Queen Mary College, University of London

Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy, University of Cambridge

Department of Materials, University of Oxford

Department of Metallurgy and Minerals, University of Birmingham

Department of Mineralogy, Natural History Museum

Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Leicester

Department of Physics, Heriot-Watt University

Department of Physics, University of Bath

Department of Physics, University of York

Department of Trade and Industry

Division of Environmental Health and Risk Management, University of Birmingham

Economic and Social Research Council

Electronics Institute, Aston University

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

Environment Agency

Environmental Defense

Environment, Planning and Countryside Committee, National Assembly for Wales

European Centre for Ecotoxicology and Toxicology of Chemicals (ECETOC)

European Commission DG Enterprise and Industry

European Commission DG Environment

European Commission DG Health and Consumer Protection

European Commission DG Research

European Environment and Sustainable Development Advisory Councils

European Nanotechnology Trade Alliance

Food Standards Agency

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Forum for the Future

Friends of the Earth

Friends of the Earth, Cymru

Friends of the Earth, Scotland

Fullerene Science Centre, University of Sussex

Green Chemistry Network, University of York

Green Chemistry Institute, USA

Greenpeace UK

Health Protection Agency

Health and Safety Executive

House of Commons Select Committee on Environmental Audit

House of Commons Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology

ICI Measurement Science Group

IENS Lancaster University

Institute for Materials Research, University of Leeds

Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology, University of Newcastle Upon Tyne

Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining

Institute of Nanotechnology

Institute of Occupational Medicine

Institute of Polymer Technology and Materials Engineering, Loughborough University

Institute of Photonics, University of Strathclyde

Institute of Physics

IRC in Nanotechnology

Kodak Ltd

Materials and Engineering Research Institute, Sheffield Hallam University

Materials Department, Cranfield University

Materials Research Group, Kingston University

Materials Science Centre, University of Manchester

Medical Research Council

Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency

Merck Chemicals Ltd

Micro and Nanotechnology Network

Ministry of Defence

National Consumer Council

National Institute for Environment and Science, University of Cambridge

National Physical Laboratory

National Society for Clean Air and Environmental Protection

Natural Environment Research Council

NI Environment & Heritage Service


Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council

Polymer IRC

Polymer Science Centre, University of Reading


Qinetiq Nanomaterials Ltd

Research Councils UK

Research Services Division, University of Cambridge

School of Biomedical and Natural Sciences, Nottingham-Trent University

School of Chemistry, University of St. Andrews

School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds

School of Engineering Sciences, University of Southampton

School of Life Sciences, Napier University

School of Pharmacy, University of Nottingham

School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Southampton

Science and Technology Policy Research, University of Sussex

Scottish Environment Protection Agency

Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department

Scottish Microelectronics Centre, University of Edinburgh

Society of Chemical Industry

Sustainable Development Commission

The British Academy

The Engineering Forum

The Green Alliance

The National Assembly for Wales

The Polymer Centre, University of Sheffield

The Royal Academy of Engineering

The Royal Society

The Royal Society of Chemistry

The Royal Society of Edinburgh

The Scottish Executive, Health Department

The Scottish Parliament

The Scottish Parliament, Environment and Rural Development Committee

Thomas Swan and Co Ltd

UK Centre for Materials Education

UK Energy Research Centre

UK Environmental Law Association

UK Microsystems and Nanotechnology Manufacturing Association


United States Environmental Protection Agency

University of Edinburgh

University of Liverpool

University of Sussex

Warwick Manufacturing Group, University of Warwick

Wolfson Centre for Materials Processing, Brunel University


Invitation to submit written evidence

The Royal Commission issued an invitation to submit written evidence at the end of April 2007.  Anyone was welcome to contribute and the deadline was 20 July 2007.


1 Defra Science Notes: Nanoscience and the Environment

2 Taken from the website of the European Union, European Commission Research Directorate General: http://europa.eu.int/comm/research/growth/gcc/ga01.html#top

Page last modified: 24 November, 2008
Page created: xx January, 2004
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